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Crazy Business Ideas That Actually Worked: Roomba

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The first robot to join the American family may have disappointed sci-fi fans, but boy, can it clean.

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iRobot (IRBT), makers of the Roomba, recently marked two significant achievements. First came the news that the Roomba robotic vacuum system had passed the 5 million mark in sales. And next, the Roomba won the coveted Minyanville Award as "Robot Voted Least Likely to Rule a Post-Apocalyptic Future." Congratulations to all our finalists. Better luck next year, Aibo the Sony Robot Dog.

Successful as it's become, the Roomba represents a major bummer for science fiction. Gort the intergalactic enforcer, squat little droids packed with personality, menacing red-eyed cyborgs -- these were to be our robotic future. Not vacuum cleaners. Certainly there have been some pretty lame robot movies over the years. But what dazzled teen, munching popcorn and marveling at Terminator II, could have realized that in 20 years the closest thing to actual robot news footage would be a thrilling six-minute video battle against living room dust?

In fact, even as Alex Proyas' blockbuster was packing theaters in 1991, iRobot was unveiling its first viable creation -- a six-legged robot named Genghis, designed for extraterrestrial exploration. iRobot had been launched the previous year by MIT pals Colin Angle, Helen Greiner, and Rodney Brooks. (Genghis was, in fact, a product of Angle's thesis project for his master's degree, and is now in the Smithsonian.)

Initial projects were closer to what you'd expect for pioneering robot builders. They made military products like the 1996 mine-detecting robot Ariel, followed by the PackBot that helped search World Trade Center rubble in September 2001. It was only in 2002 that things took a more domestic turn with the unveiling of the first Roomba.

Robots are the stuff of science fiction. Vacuums are mostly sold to people who probably haven't seen a movie since before the kids were born. Would harried domestic managers really embrace the Dr. Who approach to household cleaning? iRobot opted for the risky approach of infomercials and the Home Shopping Network (HSNI), usually a medium for peddling items far less expensive than Roomba's $199.99 price tag. But Roomba turned out to be a hit show, selling over 4,000 units in two days.

Two years later the next-generation Discovery series arrived, featuring a home charging base to which the little dirt munchers returned automatically. Roomba sales surpassed the 1 million mark not long afterward.

A third-generation Roomba has since appeared, along with other little iRobot-designed rivals to the Jetsons' Rosie -- the Scooba floor-washing robot, the Dirt Dog for garage cleaning, the Looj for gutters, and the Verro for pool cleaning. (Check out the Looj in action, here.) Meanwhile iRobot continues to sell its PackBot line worldwide, as well as working on military products for the US Army. The company went public in November 2005.



If the geek community was disappointed that the "Rise of the Machines" predicted by Hollywood actually failed to reach ankle level, they've recovered. iRobot's Create product, based on the Roomba design, has become a standard mobile platform for robot builders. Prior to the 2007 introduction of Create, robot builders often hacked Roomba's software in order to get their own Frankenstein projects moving. Many Create robots have gone on to become major stars in Botball and other robot competitions.

This may finally be the path to that dystopian robot future so often prophesied. Tomorrow's mechanical entities may indeed turn against humanity -- not through war, but through contract disputes and training-camp holdouts. Or perhaps, on one terrible day yet to come, they'll just get really, really pissed off about your inability to keep cracker crumbs off the living room floor. And then God help us all.
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